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Leading Remotely Effectively and Inclusively

When business conditions tighten, diversity and inclusion become more important – not less, as some might be tempted to think – in our responses to managing through the coronavirus pandemic.
Diversity Partners

Just a few weeks ago, the CFO of Booz Allen Hamilton, a global technology and management consulting firm, said ‘in my current role as CFO of a Fortune 500 company, I’ve never been more convinced that diversity is essential for successful leadership in times of crisis.’

‘During crises, the presence of diversity and the practice of inclusion is essential to challenge us to look at problems differently and consider a wider range of financial issues and impacts that we might not otherwise.’

In this blog, we take a deeper look at why inclusive leadership, diversity, and awareness of unconscious bias matter now, more than ever, for businesses mapping out a new future.

First, a brief refresh on what inclusive leadership means.  Writing in Harvard Business Review earlier this year, Juliet Bourke and Andrea Espedido say that ‘Inclusive leadership is emerging as a unique and critical capability helping organisations adapt to diverse customers, markets, ideas and talent.’ Inclusive leaders demonstrate a visible commitment to diversity, show humility, have an awareness of bias, are curious, attentive to others’ cultures, and collaborate effectively.

In today’s COVID-19 context, these are immensely valuable traits. An inclusive leader can help generate different perspectives and thinking approaches within teams – keys to the quick innovation and agility needed to operate in this new world.

An inclusive leader can help remote team members manage through various waves of uncertainty and grief and build a strong sense of belonging by empathising with day-to-day challenges and crafting sensitive responses to the diverse needs team members will have – such as managing children or elderly parents at home, or managing heightened anxiety.

An inclusive leader on a virtual team meeting is likely to be adept in encouraging multiple perspectives for problem-solving. For example, they encourage people who hold unique information – known in decision-making research as ‘cognitively peripheral’ team members – to share their views first. (In most groups, ‘cognitively central’ people – those who hold commonly held knowledge – have a disproportionate influence on discussion and are accorded higher levels of credibility.)

What’s more, businesses with inclusive leaders who know how to recognise and challenge unconscious biases that impact decision-making have a competitive advantage. If we allow unconscious biases – such as confirmation bias, affinity bias, sunflower bias, status quo bias and groupthink – to go unnoticed and unchallenged, we may overlook business risks and opportunities during this COVID-19 operating world.

Business psychologists explain that unconscious bias is exacerbated during times of stress and cognitive depletion, so it’s particularly important we stay alert to the impact of unconscious bias on our decision-making at this time.

If we allow unconscious biases – such as confirmation bias, affinity bias, sunflower bias, status quo bias and groupthink – to go unnoticed and unchallenged, we may overlook business risks and opportunities during this COVID-19 operating world.

New learning forums

Like most businesses in Australia and elsewhere, our business rapidly transitioned to online delivery over the past month.

Drawing on our extensive experience in supporting organisations to advance diversity, develop inclusive leadership capability and promote flexible working, we began offering one-hour interactive learning forums to equip leaders with skills to lead remote teams effectively and inclusively.

We’ve recently extended that offering to interactive forums on navigating work and caring commitments during the pandemic, customising to the client organisations’ policies and experiences with flexible work.

Our own experience of working remotely and familiarity with a range of technology collaboration platforms meant we were able to meet the immediate needs of clients in sectors as diverse as financial services and energy and resources to support their leaders to build a sense of belonging with remote teams.

One of the most popular discussion topics is disrupting unconscious bias and encouraging different perspectives in virtual team meetings. Here’s a few practical ideas we explore with leaders.

  • Welcome everyone to the call. If it’s the first call of the day, you might consider inviting them to share one thing they’re grateful for today and one thing they’re struggling with;

  • Actively seek out diverse views, particularly from ‘cognitively peripheral’ team members (those who hold unique information/ perspectives) and encourage newer or more junior members to speak early in the meeting;

  • Prime critical thinking among team members. i.e. encourage team members to take an alternative or opposing view to yours (to avoid priming and thought cascades);

  • Ask specific questions, rather than open-ended questions, to encourage engagement on the topic you’re discussing;

  • If some team members are unable to join (due to family/home-schooling needs for example), brief them afterwards and invite their perspective;

  • Review the different thinking approaches required for robust decision-making and scan the conversation to establish whether there is a mix of thinking approaches covering risk, evidence, process, people, etc.

This is some of the feedback we’ve received from clients after the forums in recent weeks:

“The process and content totally hit the mark and proved so valuable in the current context. It has enabled some good reflections and different conversations across the senior teams. It also enabled our senior leaders to begin a collective conversation on their challenges and shared learnings. The coronavirus is not what we would ever have asked for, however it is going to enable some significant growth and learning in our leadership and culture.”

 “We’ve received great feedback that the session was really timely and breaking down the strategies by family, team and individual meant there was something in it for everyone. And the practical tips and ideas were well received.”

If you’d like more information about our learning forums, we’d love to hear from you. Please email us at or call our office on 1800 571 999.

About Dr Katie Spearritt

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